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When English isn’t your first language

Recently a therapist approached me with a problem. She’s a beautiful and talented massage therapist, but English is not her first language, and she sometimes feels like she’s not coming across as professional and knowledgeable due to the language barrier.

I thought about it and realized that she cannot be the only massage therapist in this situation. Many of us have difficulty communicating clearly and confidently, regardless of the language we grew up with.

This blog article will address some things that I hope will help her and others like her.

Utilizing Paperwork to Educate and Empower

Many therapists overlook the power of a proper intake form (assuming they even use one). Not only can you gather basic information and medical history, you can also ask many questions about the client’s goals for the session, preferred pressure, favorite areas, areas to avoid, and so much more.

If you feel that you are stumbling over these questions during your in-person intake, create a form that allows your clients to answer the questions in advance.

Many therapists utilize an anatomical figure on their forms so that the client can mark their problem areas. You can also ask questions to find out what makes it feel better or worse, what they’ve tried in the past, what it feels like (at its best, average, and worst), and what activities the pain limits them from doing.

Not only will you get a better overall picture of the client’s needs and goals, you’ll be able to communicate clearly with them to find this out without having to say a word.

If you aren’t 100% confident in your English writing skills, I suggest that you ask a friend to help you with your rough draft.

Unfortunately if you work at a franchise or chain, you may not be able to modify the paperwork. In this case, take advantage of what you have to the best of your ability. Hopefully the next few tips will help as well.
Communicating During Your Session

Most massage sessions have several things in common. The client greeting, the intake, explaining how to get on the table, asking for feedback during the session, ending the session, and checking out the client.

My suggestion for those of you who are struggling is to purposefully sit down and craft responses to these things in advance. Once you are happy with your wording, practice saying them over and over until you can deliver each line as easily as you can say, “please pass the salt.”

Client Greeting Example: “Hello (client name)! My name is (your name). Do you need to use the restroom before we begin? Please come into my massage room so that we can talk about your experience today.”

Great questions to ask before the massage: “How will you know if the massage is successful for you today?” “How do you want to feel after the massage?” “What do I need to know to give you the massage you’re looking for today?” “What has worked well for you in past massages?” “What haven’t you liked during past massages?” (I wouldn’t ask all of these at the same visit, but they are all great options to have memorized.)

Clearly explain how to get on the table: “I am going to leave the room to go wash my hands. I need you to undress as far as you are comfortable. Then lie on the table (face up or face down) with your head here (physically pat the table where their head should go), underneath the sheet (physically turn the sheet back and motion to “under” the sheet while you say this).” You can also add “looking at the ceiling” or “put your face in the face cradle” to help them remember which way to get on the table. “I will knock before I come back in.”

Before you start the massage: “Please be sure to speak up the moment you need me to do something different. If you need more or less pressure, all you need to do is ask. I’ve taken many hours of training to be a massage therapist, but none of those hours were in mind reading. Will you please let me know if something is uncomfortable?”

During the massage: “Would you prefer deeper or lighter pressure?” “Can I do anything to help you be more comfortable?” “This area seems very tense. Do you want some more specific work here, or should I continue your relaxation massage?”

At the end of the service. “(Name), our time for today is up. Please be very careful when you get up. Get dressed and then (open the door/meet me in the hall/meet me up front/whatever applies at your place of work). I’ll see you (repeat when you open the door/in the hallway/up front/etc.)”

After they are dressed: “How do you feel?” “Would you prefer anything different during your next visit?” “I look forward to seeing you again next time. I recommend that you come back (next week/in two weeks/next month/etc.) to continue to (address that issue/maintain your improvement/help you stay relaxed/some other benefit.” (I have several articles about rebooking on my site that may be of interest to you.)
Frequently Asked Questions

Most massage clients will ask the same questions. Over time you’ll learn how to answer those questions clearly and effectively and find yourself using the same words over and over as you learn what works. Again, I recommend that you make a list of the top 10 questions you’re asked and figure out how to give a clear and professional response. Practice it until it is easy.

Some questions that you may get often and suggested answers (tailor for YOUR unique practice):

What kinds of massage do you offer? “I offer massage for people who want to unwind and relax as well as for people who have pain or discomfort. Which do you think describes your goals for massage? Can you tell me more about that?”

What are your hours? “I offer appointments Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at this location. I would be happy to check my schedule to see when a convenient time for you would be. My next appointments are Wednesday or next Monday, which do you prefer?”

What do you charge? “My charges are based on the length of session. 60-minutes is standard, but most of my clients love longer sessions so they can deeply relax and still get some focused work on their problem areas. I highly recommend the 75 or 90 minute. My prices for those are $100 and $120.” “The cost varies based on the treatment you choose. The price is $70 for a relaxation massage and $100 for a hot stone massage.”

Where are you located? “I’m located off (major road) near (your major crossroads nearby). It’s about 5 minutes off of I-75. The address is 1234 Main Street in Lakewood Ranch. Do you need specific directions?”

Where are you from? “Oh, you noticed my accent? I grew up in (country name) and moved here (however many years ago). What about yourself? Have you lived in Florida long?”

Other Tips

Here are a few tips and tricks to remember when describing your services or answering questions:

  • Avoid jargon and buzz words. You may get excited over “myofascial release” and “meridians” but chances are your clients will not understand what you’re talking about. Use words that the average 2nd-grader (8 year old) could understand.
  • Speak in terms of benefits to the patients. Talk about the things that you help people with. “I help people relax deeply during an hour vacation on my table so that they can go back to their daily lives with less stress.” “I help people who have back pain get back to doing the things that they love to do.”
  • If you have a hard time pronouncing a certain word, choose a different one that means the same thing. A friend of mine is from Scotland and has a very thick accent. If he says “dirty” his clients had a hard time understanding him. So instead he now says “filthy”. When clients ask you to repeat yourself take note of what you said. If speaking more clearly doesn’t work, it may be that you simply need to find a different word to use or way to explain yourself.
  • If you’re asked a question and you need to think about how to say it in English, use “that’s a great question and I’d be happy to answer it” to give yourself time to think. Often when someone doesn’t answer you and just stares blankly it comes across as a lack of understanding. Indicating that you heard them, acknowledging their question, and then answering it takes away that concern.
  • Do not be afraid to ask them to repeat themselves or rephrase the question. “I heard you ask me about (repeat what they said), but I’m not sure I understand. Could you please give me some more details/could you please tell me more about that?”
  • If it is a question that does not need an answer that very moment, and you aren’t sure how to respond, to say, “I’m going to give your question some thought. Is it okay if I email you with the answer later?”

Do you have tips that would be helpful for a massage therapist who doesn’t speak English as their first language? Please leave them in the comments box.

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